The Northern School is our 5th production and is a fully immersive theatrical event with film and live 50’s rock n roll band, it takes place through the whole of Bradford Playhouse from October 4th – 8th. We aim to bring the Playhouse back to life as it was during the heady heyday of The Northern School of Acting, to recreate the zest and excitement of a new young generation of working class kids who dreamt of changing the world they lived in.
It was actually whilst researching something else entirely that I accidentally stumbled across the name Esme Church, and first heard of The Northern School of Acting, which ran at Bradford Civic Playhouse from 1945 to the start of the 60’s. I read on and discovered a whole fascinating, yet largely forgotten cache of my home city’s creative history, that I never knew existed.
It turns out Esme was a well known West End face in her time, who’d worked with them all, Olivier, Gielgud you name ‘em. She was part of the group that took the Old Vic Theatre to Burnley to escape the bombing during the war. Needless to say the second peace came the theatre folks decamped en masse back Shaftsbury Avenue way, except for Esme, who stayed north. To her friends bemusement,nay outright horror, she took the job of Director of the amateur Bradford Civic Playhouse.
Once there she wasted no time in setting up The Northern School of Acting, offering young hopefuls from this neck of the woods to get a proper drama school training, comparable to anything in London. Classes ran in the evenings, students had to audition to get in and pay their weekly subs. Esme taught them how to think, walk, smoke a fag and above all talk like real actors, and that meant losing their deep ingrained flat Bratfud vowels and glottal stops!
Through the school went people like Billie Whitelaw, who went on to be Samuel Beckett’s muse, others included Tom Bell, Edward Pethebridge and Dorothy Heathcote who would become one of the original driving forces behind the whole Theatre in education movement. Esme wanted the very best and would settle for nothing less, and she wanted it in Bradford!The more we read about the school and just how groundbreaking and visionary Esme’s ambition was, the more we were inspired by her. And the more we wanted to do a project about it.
Bradford of the 50’s was very different to the multi cultural, multi lingual, omni-shambolic yet buzzing, busy, dirt poor and rough as a dogs arse one that we know and love today. It was a time when the first teenagers threw off the shackles of the war years and let rip to the sounds of rock n roll. They had a bit of money in their pockets and they wanted more than their parents had known. They were growing up in a city that had confidence, jobs, money, new houses going up everywhere as the back to backs came down and the city centre was ripped apart in what passed for progress, but turned out to be just a lot of concrete.
As the 50’s wore on the new voices of the angry young men got louder and by 1960 the British New Wave of cinema, aka the ‘kitchen sink’ era was about to flower with films like Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. Coronation Street is just round the corner and The Beatles are tuning up in Liverpool. A confident, youthful, humorous yet passionate northern voice is finally about to get onstage and in front of a camera!
The germs of a play began to form. Esme’s generation was all about the London stage, the actor as a thing of beauty, vocally perfect, who must look and sound like Gielgud and Olivier. But in the north change is brewing, young people are starting to want to look and sound like themselves! From this premise our project, The Northern School, began to take shape. It is the passing of a baton from one generation to another. But without Esme they would never have had the chance at all.
Esme was an innovator in her own time,we felt that our piece should honour that by being as modern in form and style as we can make it. So it is more an event than a play, the bar will be open throughout, you will be able to buy tea and coffee in the Jazz café we set. The audience will be able to explore the building, backstage and front, discovering scenes and characters along the way.
Above all we want the project to mirror what Esme was trying to do, to open doors, give young people from Bradford and district the chance to work alongside professional actors and creatives. We want them to feel and believe that the theatre is a world they can be part of, that Bradford is a city they can be proud of, where good things have happened and will now - if we make them. Jude and I are passionate about this city and we just hope we’ve done it, Esme and The Northern School justice.